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Ridgeback Breed Column
May 2007 issue

By Denise Flaim
Chair, Rhodesian Ridgeback Health & Genetics Committee
© Denise Flaim

What do Rhodesian Ridgebacks and cocker spaniels have in common? More than you might think.

It began, as most of these things do, at a cocktail party. Amid sips of chardonnay at the AKC Canine Health Foundation’s 2005 conference in Kansas City, Mo., my fellow Health & Genetics chair Cynthia Roethel and I struck up a conversation with Bobbie Kolehouse of the American Spaniel Club.

We soon learned that the ASC had developed an electronic health survey that sounded like the perfect replacement for the clunky, paper-only survey we had used since 1996. Not only was it easy to use, it was also totally confidential: The survey maintainer, Larry Hopkins of Elements Software Engineering, is a Wisconsin sheep breeder who has no involvement in purebred dogs. Before he sends survey results to the breed club, he strips out any identifying information.

Then came the maraschino cherry on this sundae: The ASC offers the survey free to other breed clubs. All we had to do was pay a very reasonable fee to Larry to tailor the survey to our breed.

With the help of Katrina Viviano, our health-survey coordinator, we adapted the ASC survey to include not just the obvious questions about ridges and dermoid sinus, but we also added a new section on reproduction. Breeders can record everything from progesterone values to the number of stillborns; they can also list individual puppies and then allow new owners to import the records, encouraging them to maintain the survey record for rest of their dog’s life.

Entries in the survey are available for breeders and owners to review and print out, making it a sort of living document.

Beyond the statistics it would generate, we saw the survey as a conduit for two pivotal projects: obtaining DNA on affected dogs for our many research projects; and promoting home DNA storage among owners and breeders.

In our survey, each time a respondent checks off a condition that RRCUS supports research on – whether mast cell tumors or cataracts or deafness – he or she is given information on how to contact Health & Genetics. The respondent can always decline, thus preserving anonymity.

Similarly, while taking the survey, users can request free swabs as part of our groundbreaking DNAah (DNA Storage at Home_ program, which seeks to proactively store multi-generational DNA before disease manifests.

The Comprehensive Rhodesian Ridgeback Health Survey debuted in late February. Within days, we had more than 150 dogs entered – and counting.

The survey is open to dogs that were alive on or born after January 1, 1995. We welcome entries on any purebred Rhodesian Ridgebacks, including those overseas.  

To enter a dog in the survey – or to take a tour – visit LKHopkins.com/Ridgeback, or go to RhodesianRidgebackHealth.org and click on “Take the Survey.”

The final word, of course, goes to the ASC and Bobbie Kolehouse, to whom we are indebted and grateful for sharing such a phenomenal resource.

SIGHT AND SCENT hound magazine
May 2007 issue

By Denise Flaim
Chair, Rhodesian Ridgeback Health & Genetics Committee
© Denise Flaim

We Ridgeback folks have a new health survey.

Why should you care?

If you’re a Ridgebacker, of course, the Comprehensive Rhodesian Ridgeback Health Survey (CRRHS) is valuable because it is the only mechanism we have to track the diseases and conditions that are most prevalent in the breed. With that information, the Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of the United States can make educated decisions about where to invest our research dollars.

But even if you’re not in Ridgebacks, the health survey is worth a look because it is available to your breed club, for a fraction of the cost it would take to build it from scratch. (You can test-drive it at www.lkhopkins.com/ridgeback.)

Credit for the survey – which is totally electronic and completely confidential (more on that later) – goes to the American Spaniel Club. In what is perhaps the best-kept secret in purebred dogs, the cocker club makes the survey available, free, to any breed club that wants it. The programmer, Larry Hopkins of ESE Engineering, who when he’s not tap-tap-tapping his keyboard runs a sheep farm in northern Wisconsin, charges a nominal fee of $500 to tailor the survey to a particular breed, then a reasonable monthly fee to maintain the database.

RRCUS is not the only club to take the ASC up on its offer. Recently, the Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen Club of America launched its own PBGV version. We can only imagine more breed club have not followed suit because they do not know it is available.

From the point of view of many owners and especially breeders, the health survey satisfies one tremendous concern: confidentiality. Good intentions in a breed community only go so far, and having health information channeled through breed-club members – even anonymously – can be a significant deterrent. Larry does not own purebred dogs, he is about as unplugged from the show world as one can get, and he has sole access to the health information. Before data is sent to the breed club, it is stripped of any identifying information, so that all is left are the raw numbers.

Ridgebacks are one of the most versatile breeds in the Hound group, and we wanted our health survey to follow suit. We wanted the CRRHS to be a place where health information was not only tabulated, but we also wanted it to be a tool for breeders and owners to use to access the health information they input on their individual dogs, as well as data on breedings and the puppies they produced.

So, we worked with Larry to build a new, in-depth reproduction module into the Ridgeback version of the health survey. It lets breeders enter in the details of breedings, whelpings and postpartum progress. At a glance, breeders can check a bitch’s record and see when she ovulated on her second breeding, how many puppies she had in each whelping, what the birth weights were for the first week and beyond, how many were stillborn, how many were born with congenital conditions such as cryptorchidism or cleft palates. It’s information that many of us keep, scrawled on notepaper and stuffed in bulging folders. But with the CRRHS, it’s all visible and available to you – and no one else – whenever you log into your password-protected account.

Another thing we wanted to add to the CHRRS was a platform for DNAah, which stands for DNA Archive at Home.

For the better part of last year, Cynthia Roethel, who chairs the RRCUS Health & Genetics Committee with me, and I had been brainstorming about ways to store DNA on Ridgebacks of all ages. We knew from our work with geneticists that DNA is the coin of the realm when it comes to research: Scientists need DNA to find the markers for the heritable diseases that plague each and every breed.

But storing DNA is tricky: We didn’t want to have RRCUS be responsible for maintaining and cataloging swabs – more confidentiality concerns there. And while several universities and institutions offer DNA banking of both blood and cheek swabs, they also charged a fee, and owners and breeders lose some, if not all, of the control of the DNA they bank.

In the end, we decided that the best place for DNA storage is among our own Ridgebackers. And so we created the DNA Archive at Home (or DNAah, pronounced “Dinah”), in which we provide six free DNA swabs to owners who request them through the health survey. The swabs are provided on the honor system: Owners promise to turn three of them over to RRCUS-sponsored research projects if and when the DNA is needed; the remaining three are theirs to use as they see fit.

The health survey is our mechanism for communicating with DNAah participants. If survey participants check off a health problem that RRCUS is researching, they are directed to a page that tells them how to contact the Health & Genetics chair responsible for that project. If they choose not to, their privacy is maintained.

If we initiate a health project after a dog has been entered in the health survey, then Larry can send an email to participants alerting them to the fact that there is new research underway.

We are encouraging breeders to save cheek swabs on entire litters before they go to their new homes, so they will have a generational bank of DNA in their own home. The swabs need no special storage or care; a shoebox does just fine, as long as conditions are not extremely damp or moldy.

The Comprehensive Rhodesian Ridgeback Health Survey debuted the first week in March with both the reproductive module and the DNAah mechanism in place. Within a month, we had almost 400 dogs and two dozen litters entered, and well over 100 requests for DNAah swabs.

We cannot thank the American Spaniel Club for giving us this invaluable tool for documenting and advancing Ridgeback health. In turn, our additional work on the survey’s reproductive module and our DNAah concept are available to any breed club that wants it: It is yours for the taking.

We hope you do – for the good of your breed, and for the good of purebred dogs in general.

For more information on the Comprehensive Rhodesian Ridgeback Health Survey (CRRHS) or the DNA Archive at Home (DNAah) program, visit www.RhodesianRidgebackHealth.org.